SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, MAY 15, 2011, THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Each Sunday since Easter, we have seen people in the gospels come to know Jesus in new ways.  We saw Thomas’ skepticism dramatically melt away to be replaced by a profound faith that confessed Jesus as “My Lord, and my God.”  The Emmaus disciples’ dejected hearts burned when they finally recognized Jesus as he broke the bread.  And today, on what’s often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” for all the references in the liturgy and readings to sheep and shepherds, we are again invited to see Jesus in a new way, so let’s look at the gospel reading from John 10 to see (1) what it tells us about Jesus, and (2) what it tells us about ourselves. 

To start, it tells us three things about Jesus – First, it tells us that the sheep rightly belong to himJesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”  (John 10.1-2)  Now, if you pick up your bible at home and read this, it’s clearly marked as the beginning of “Chapter 10,” but John didn’t divide his gospel into chapters and verses.  And the way Chapter 10 starts – with Truly, truly, I say to you – that construction “never begins a discourse but always follows up some previous teaching.”[1]  So here at the beginning we see that this passage flows right out of what came before it in chapters 7-9, a big block of teaching that covers much of the last year of Jesus’ life where the issue is who is this Jesus character.  In Jerusalem for a feast in chapter 7, people begin to ask whether Jesus might be the messiah.  In chapter 8 the Pharisees come right out and ask “Who are you?” (8.25)  And in chapter 10, in a direct challenge to the Pharisees, he reaches back into the OT for this image of the shepherd and his sheep and in one fell swoop he indicts the Pharisees and says “this, this is who I am.”  He reaches to Ezekiel 34, where God told the prophet Ezekiel to prophesy against the leaders he calls “the shepherds of Israel” and say this: 

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!  . . . You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.  You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals . . . .  Therefore . . . I am against the shepherds . . . .  I will remove them from tending the flock . . . .  I will rescue my flock from their mouths and it will no longer be food for them.  (Ezek. 34.2-10) 

And right afterward, God says:  “I will place over [my sheep] one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”  (Ezek. 34.23)  Whenever you hear a prophet say someone is coming, someone who will be a “David,” that’s messianic language.  So here, in John 10, the first thing Jesus is telling us about himself is that he is the true shepherd, and the Pharisees are false shepherds.  The sheep rightly belong to him; the religious leaders of Israel are thieves and robbers.  Jesus is claiming to be the messiah, the rightful king of Israel and the true shepherd of the people of God.

But Jesus also tells us what makes him the true shepherd.  Second, he is the true shepherd because he knows his sheepTo him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  (10.3)  Now, I am from Mississippi, but I confess I don’t know a thing about sheep, but the commentaries all say it was common in those days for multiple shepherds to house all their sheep together overnight in a common enclosure or “sheepfold” guarded by a gatekeeper, then in the morning an interesting thing would happen.  H. V. Morton described watching this happen one time:

Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem.  Two shepherds had evidently spet the night with their flocks in a cave.  The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions.  One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call.  First one, then another, then four or five animals ran towards him; and so on until he had counted his whole flock.[2]

Each shepherd would call up his sheep, and at the sound of his voice his sheep, and no others, would come out.  And if that’s not remarkable enough, we’re told the true shepherd calls each sheep “by name.”  Whitey, Spot, Flop-Ears, whatever – he knows the name of every sheep.  What does that mean?  It means Jesus knows his people individually and personally.  He knows everything we’ve ever done, so we don’t have to try and prop ourselves up before him; we don’t have to put on airs, any pretense of righteousness, try to be anything we know deep down inside that we’re not.

And the really amazing thing that makes him the true shepherd, which is the third thing Jesus tells us about himself, is that he lays his life down for his sheep.  We didn’t read it, but in the very next verse after today’s passage Jesus says I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  (John 10.11)  Just think about that – Jesus knows you through and through.  He knows everything you’ve ever done, every thought you’ve ever had, and yet he laid his life down for you on the cross.  Romans 5.8 says:  “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  

The passages tells us Jesus is the true shepherd because he knows his sheep and lays down his own life for them, but it also tells us two things about ourselves.  First, it tells us that we live in a world with a whole lot of diverse sheep, but we know only one gate to the sheepfoldJesus said again, I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  (John 10.7-9)  If I’ve been struck by one thing since my family came back to Boston, it’s the level of religious pluralism.  I was talking to Fr. Warren about this once, and he remarked, I think rightly, that we come by it honest in New England because the roots of Unitarianism run deep here.  In fact, I’d have to say that religious pluralism is one of the most attractive parts of life in the city to which Renee’ and I find ourselves drawn.  Where we come from the only real flavors of religious “diversity” are Baptist and Presbyterian, so we love living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, diverse place.  However, in a culture of religious pluralism – with mosques, synagogues and churches on the same block; books by atheists and fundamentalists jockeying for position on the same New York Times bestseller lists; a world made small by technology and globalism – in a culture like that, Jesus’ claim to be “the gate for the sheep” can sound pretty intolerant. 

The church can respond to an increasingly diverse world in a whole range of ways, but a range that is bounded by the twin poles of fundamentalism and extreme liberalism.  On one end of the spectrum is a liberalism that claims we cannot know ultimate truth, so we cannot contend that Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which men must be saved,” which is what Peter preached before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4.12.  But on the other end of the spectrum is a fundamentalism that pines away for a lost Christian hegemony.  Lesslie Newbigin rejects both these alternatives in an incredibly important little book called Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth.  Newbigin says the church must

refuse to accept the idea that there is no third possibility between some sort of theocracy, perhaps a return to an idealized picture of medieval Christendom, on the one hand, and agnostic pluralism on the other . . . .  [T]he call to the Church is to enter vigorously into the struggle for truth in the public domain.  We cannot look for the security which would be ours in a restored Christendom.  Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions.  We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures.[3]

Newbigin urges us simply to be ready to tell our story and name the name of Jesus.  Elsewhere in the book he says “We do not have all the truth, but we know the way along which truth is to be sought and found,”[4] and when the opportunity arises, we are called to lovingly and graciously say “this is where I found bread; this is the light I’ve found by which I can now see everything more clearly – why not come over here and see whether you see what I see?” 

That’s an evangelism that’s neither fundamentalist nor agnostic, and to follow Jesus means being willing to go that way.  And that’s the last thing we learn about ourselves from this passage in John:  When we hear the shepherd’s voice, we followWhen he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.  (John 10.4)  Jesus doesn’t just give us a map, say “Go find your way by yourself,” then stand on the sideline wincing every time we take a misstep.  Jesus goes before us and with us.  Middle-eastern shepherds don’t drive their sheep with dogs like shepherds from other parts of the world do; they lead, and their sheep follow the sound of their voice.  Jesus is the true shepherd.  Follow him wherever he leads, and John says we “will have life, and have it abundantly.”  (John 10.10)

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Sources:

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1995): 446.

[2] H. V. Morton, In the Steps of the Master (London, 1935): 155 (quoted in Morris, The Gospel According to John, 447 n.17).

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 59-60.

[4] Ibid., 34.